Early into “Avalanche,” Anne make an astute observation about Charles and Diana’s marriage: He acts older than his age and she acts younger than hers, which even further widens the considerable gap in their ages and personalities. But maybe the biggest problem with Charles and Diana’s relationship is that they’re both phenomenally self-centered people. They’re each so focused on themselves that they can only show love through their own interests, rather than making any sort of effort to understand what their partner actually enjoys. Thus we get Charles gifting Diana a book of Spencer family history, which is obviously not her jam. And we get Diana doing, well, the absolute most.
Diana first makes the phenomenally miscalculated decision to celebrate Charles’ 37th birthday by crashing a Royal Opera House gala for a scene-stealing dance to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”—diminishing the dignity of the event and upstaging Charles all in one blow. It’s so obviously something he would hate that you have to assume there’s at least a little bit of a “screw you!” thrill in it for her. (Not that that justifies his verbally abusive reaction in the car ride after.) But what’s even more interesting is that after Diana recommits to their marriage and genuinely tries to course correct, she still manages to completely misjudge her husband. She assumes the only problem with the first performance was its public nature, and thus gifts him truly one of the cringiest things I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life: A VHS tape of herself performing a fully costumed and staged performance of “All I Ask Of You” from The Phantom Of The Opera.
Back in “Fairytale,” Diana spent a good chunk of her time in Buckingham Palace just starring at herself in the mirror. Now that she’s a princess, she has limitless resources to do that same kind of navel-gazing on a much grander scale. Charles’ similar self-involvement manifests in stuffier, more cruelly petulant ways, which makes it much less sympathetic (and, frankly, more boring to watch). But I appreciate that The Crown is acknowledging that Charles and Diana both have flaws. It’s an open question as to how much of her impassioned marriage-saving speech to Elizabeth and Philip is a genuine outpouring of emotion vs. the last ditch effort of someone who would still very much like to be the Queen of England one day. Diana does love performing, after all.
Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of “Avalanche” exist on the margins of an episode that otherwise feels frustratingly repetitive. While Peter Morgan is better than I initially gave him credit for at writing series-long arcs for his characters, he isn’t particularly great at writing season long arcs. It’s as if he picks one theme per character per season and then just repeats it each time they take center stage. Season four has certainly done a good job of drilling home the fact that Charles and Diana’s relationship was doomed from the start, but that’s left their dynamic with little room to grow and evolve. In retrospect, this season could’ve used much more of the lovely warmth they displayed in “Terra Nullius.”
Even a terrifying natural disaster isn’t enough to shake things up. As in “Fagan,” this is a case where history has provided Peter Morgan with a real-life event that might seem too melodramatic if it were invented in fiction. I had somehow never heard of Charles’ brush with death during an avalanche on the Swiss Alps, and even knowing he survived it’s still wrenching to watch Elizabeth and Philip grapple with the brief uncertainty over whether the unidentified body pulled out of the snow is their son. (It turns out to be Hugh Lindsay, the husband of Michael Shea’s press assistant Sarah from the previous episode.) Yet rather than dramatize the horrific event in a way that might bring a new perspective to Charles and Diana’s relationship, Morgan largely skips over it in favor of familiar scenes of phone calls and drawing room conversations.
“Avalanche” does at least dig into the cruel hypocrisies of monarchy, or, perhaps more accurately, of heteronormativity in general. It’s clear that when Elizabeth describes what it takes to make a royal marriage work, the “blind eyes one needs to turn” is about Diana looking the other way when it comes to Charles’ affair with Camilla, while the “rules you must abide by” is about Diana giving up her own affair with Major James Hewitt (Daniel Donskoy). It’s infuriating to see Charles happily continue his dalliance with Camilla even as he instructs his bodyguards to spy on Diana’s extramarital activities so he can find cause to leave her.
This might’ve been a stronger episode if it had more directly contrasted the two affairs. Though Camilla doesn’t have much screentime, she stealthily emerges as one of the episode’s most interesting characters. While Charles imagines them as two star-crossed lovers trapped in equally unhappy marriages, Anne warns him that he’s being too much of a “fantasist”—Camilla’s marriage is much more complex than his. Camilla later reassures Charles that he adores her and needs her more than Andrew does (fascinating qualities to emphasize!), but she doesn’t go quite so far as to say she doesn’t love Andrew too. Is she just trying to temper Charles’ expectations with realism or are her feelings genuinely more complicated?
Alas, outside of that fascinating scene, Camilla is largely pushed to the fringes of this episode, and Major James Hewit barely even registers as a presence. Instead “Avalanche” spins its wheels as Charles and Diana’s relationship continues to head towards an ending that even the most casual consumer of British pop culture knows is coming. That makes this a rather tepid hour enlivened by one shocking natural disaster and two equally shocking musical performances.
- I’m surprised that we haven’t (and presumably won’t) get a Philip-centric episode this season. Still, Tobias Menzies does a lot with a little here. I loved his shamefaced reaction to Elizabeth’s ballerina comment (a reference to Philip’s potential infidelity in season two). And his little wink to Diana before their family meeting is absolutely adorable.
- I love everything Emma Corrin does with Diana’s slightly awkward body language during the “Uptown Girl” dance. She’s charming and sells it to the crowd, but it’s also clear that the performance is less about showing off some phenomenal natural talent and more about just being in the spotlight.
- Also, yes, both musical performances really did happen, although the show takes more liberties with the Phantom performance since it’s unclear exactly what Diana filmed when she rented out the set and had Andrew Lloyd Webber and the show’s choreographer on hand.
- Charles’ bespectacled Private Secretary is named Edward Adeane (Richard Goulding) and he’s the son of Elizabeth’s mustachioed former Private Secretary Michael Adeane. In my notes, however, I call him “Chris Hayes.”
- I really can’t reiterate enough that the Phantom Of The Opera reveal is the single most shocking thing I’ve ever seen from The Crown.